In one of the most infamous incidents in America’s industrial history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burns down on this day in 1911, killing 145 workers. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.
The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Manhattan. It was a true sweatshop, employing young immigrant women who worked in a cramped space at lines of sewing machines. Nearly all the workers were teenaged girls who did not speak English and made only about $15 per week working 12 hours a day, every day. In 1911, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and the workers had to file down a long, narrow corridor in order to reach it. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent stealing and the other only opened inward. The fire escape was so narrow that it would have taken hours for all the workers to use it, even in the best of circumstances.
The danger of fire in factories like the Triangle Shirtwaist was well-known, but high levels of corruption in both the garment industry and city government generally ensured that no useful precautions were taken to prevent fires. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory’s owners were known to be particularly anti-worker in their policies and had played a critical role in breaking a large strike by workers the previous year.
On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire began in a rag bin. The manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but was unsuccessful, as the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. As the fire grew, panic ensued. The young workers tried to exit the building by the elevator but it could hold only 12 people and the operator was able to make just four trips back and forth before it broke down amid the heat and flames. In a desperate attempt to escape the fire, the girls left behind waiting for the elevator plunged down the shaft to their deaths. The girls who fled via the stairwells also met awful demises—when they found a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, many were burned alive.
Those workers who were on floors above the fire, including the owners, escaped to the roof and then to adjoining buildings. As firefighters arrived, they witnessed a horrible scene. The girls who did not make it to the stairwells or the elevator were trapped by the fire inside the factory and began to jump from the windows to escape it. The bodies of the jumpers fell on the fire hoses, making it difficult to begin fighting the fire. Also, the firefighters’ ladders reached only seven floors high and the fire was on the eighth floor. In one case, a life net was unfurled to catch jumpers, but three girls jumped at the same time, ripping the net. The nets turned out to be mostly ineffectual.
Within 18 minutes, it was all over. Forty-nine workers had burned to death or been suffocated by smoke, 36 were dead in the elevator shaft and 58 died from jumping to the sidewalks. With two more dying later from their injuries, a total of 145 people were killed by the fire. The workers’ union set up a march on April 5 on New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the conditions that had led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.
Despite a good deal of evidence that the owners and management had been horribly negligent in the fire, a grand jury failed to indict them on manslaughter charges. The tragedy did result in some good, though—the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed in the aftermath of the fire and the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law was passed in New York that October. Both were crucial in preventing similar disasters in the future.
Exactly 79 years to the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, another tragic fire occurred in New York City. The blaze, at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, killed 87 people, the most deadly fire in the city since 1911.